'Freedom': Film Review

Freedom Still - H 2015
Courtesy of ARC Entertainment

Freedom Still - H 2015

Doesn't do justice to its important historical subject matter

Peter Cousens' religious-themed drama interweaves the fictional story of a group of slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad with the true-life tale of John Newton, the slave ship captain who composed "Amazing Grace."

Don't be surprised if you find yourself humming "Amazing Grace" after watching Peter Cousens' simultaneously undercooked and overwrought religious-themed drama. Intertwining a fictional tale of a family of slaves fleeing Virginia via the Underground Railroad with the true story of John Newton, the slave ship captain who underwent a crisis of conscience and went on to compose the famous hymn, Freedom is an overly sentimental cinematic history lesson best suited for church and school groups.

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the central role of Samuel, who in 1856 flees with his family, including his aged grandmother Adira (Phyllis Bash) and wife Vanessa (Sharon Leal), from the clutches of their evil slave owner (David Rasche) whose name, Jefferson Monroe, references not one but two U.S. presidents. To retrieve the runaways, Monroe hires the veteran slave hunter Plimpton (William Sadler, effective as usual), who reluctantly takes the job even though he insists that he's "retired."

Aided in their journey by various figures including the real-life Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett (Michael Goodwin) and, making a brief appearance to deliver an inspirational speech, Frederick Douglass (Byron Utley), the runaways encounter a colorful group of itinerant actors — Broadway veteran Terrence Mann (Les Miserables) plays their leader — who use a particularly theatrical method of hiding them from their pursuers.

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It turns out that Samuel is a surly nonbeliever who has little use for the churchgoers helping him and his family. So in an effort to restore his faith, Adira relates the story of his great-grandfather Ozias (singer Jubilant Sykes), who, a century earlier, was on a ship led by Newton (Bernhard Forcher) transporting slaves from Africa to the American colonies. Newton's epiphany, a story recounted to far better dramatic effect in the film Amazing Grace, inspires Samuel to regain his faith.

A similar spiritual transformation is undergone by the slave-hunting Plimpton, who upon encountering the fugitives in the film's climactic moments prevents one of his men from shooting them, declaring that there should be "no more killing!"

Awkwardly interweaving its dramatic storylines to the point that both receive short shrift, Freedom further undercuts its effectiveness with its plethora of gospel songs and hymns, its characters breaking into song so often that it might as well have gone the theatrical route and called itself "Freedom: The Musical." But then again, Newton's story is indeed due to be presented on Broadway this summer, in the upcoming musical Amazing Grace.

Production: Production One
Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Sharon Leal, David Rasche, William Sadler, Bernhard Forcher, Anna Sims, Michael Goodwin, Terrence Mann, Phyllis Bash, Phillip Boykin
Director: Peter Cousens
Screenwriter/producer: Timothy A. Chey
Executive producers: Peter Cousens, Michael Goodin, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Director of photography: Dean Cundey
Production designer: Steven Legler
Editor: Ray Hubley
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Composer: James Lavino
Casting: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent

Rated R, 95 minutes